“There’s two kinds of pain in this world.
Pain that hurts.
Pain that alters.”
Robert McCall, The Equalizer 2 (2018)
You would think that Irish supporters would be used to World Cup quarter-final defeats by now, but every time that they happen, the wound cuts just as deep. In fact, this one is the worst so far because in other years, Ireland had some sort of excuse for not progressing beyond the last eight. Up until the last decade, the squads that they had weren’t really good enough to do so, in 2007, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, in 2011, they were over-reliant on Stephen Ferris and Seán O’Brien, and in 2015, they were missing five players from their starting XV.
This time round, they had a full deck to choose from (apart from O’Brien and Dan Leavy), the best coach in the world and their players had spent the last World Cup cycle beating the top sides in the world. I wasn’t certain that they were going to lift the Webb Ellis trophy for those reasons, but I did think that they had as good a chance as anyone. Maybe Joe Schmidt announcing his departure last year loosened his grip on the squad, maybe they can’t cope with the added pressure that comes with playing at a World Cup, but despite their mixed form in 2019, I still thought this team had at least one massive performance left in them.
Repeating The Same Act And Expecting A Different Outcome
One of the worst aspects of this loss is that it followed the same pattern as Ireland’s other big losses this year. Much like England and Wales did in the Six Nations, New Zealand out-muscled Ireland up front, read their attacking plays with relative ease, stressed their back three with accurate kicking out of hand and ruthlessly exploited their narrow defensive set-up with wide-wide plays:
The ability to learn from mistakes and adapt ahead of the next game has been key for Ireland under Schmidt, and unfortunately, they haven’t been able to do so since the end of last year. The scoreline might have been different if Jacob Stockdale had intercepted Richie Mo’unga’s early pass cleanly or if Ireland had scored a try when they were hammering away at the New Zealand line at the end of the first half, but overall, they were figured out completely by their opponents.
Fundamental mistakes from Ireland were a huge factor in this match as well, and the sheer volume of handling errors that Ireland were guilty of defied belief. They had four games to adapt to the humid conditions in Japan, yet they displayed the skill levels of an amateur side last Saturday:
Twice Johnny Sexton committed the cardinal sin of not finding touch with penalties, and although this All Blacks team is nowhere near as good as previous editions, you can’t turn the ball over 18 times and expect to beat them (or any other Tier 1 nation for that matter). Ireland’s game plan under Schmidt has again been criticised in the last few days, but there were no complaints about their kick-heavy, forward-orientated, grinding style of play when it was winning silverware. The difference then was that Ireland were hyper-accurate in everything that they did, but that trait has deserted them.
If Ireland had thrown the ball from one touch-line to the other but been error-strewn in doing so, they would have been castigated for being overly ambitious. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and I still believe that the strategy employed by Schmidt played to Ireland’s strengths, but no set of tactics are going to bear fruit if you’re going to repeatedly cough up possession. More specifically, if you can’t kick the ball out of hand with the required length and hang-time, then playing a territory-based game won’t work, and the loss of form of Ireland’s starting half-backs this year was seriously detrimental to their coaches’ preferred approach.
End Of An Era
It’s unlikely that we will see Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton in France in 2023, and it’s depressing to think that Ireland’s best-ever half-back pairing won’t ever guide their team to history on the global stage after everything they have delivered for their country. Cian Healy and Rob Kearney are two other players whose glittering international careers will probably finish before the next World Cup. Rory Best has already hung up his boots, and it was tough to watch such a loyal servant end his career on the lowest of low notes. Ireland do have talented young players coming through their academy systems, but breaking new ground at a World Cup would have been a fairytale ending for a group packed with experience and quality. Maybe this tournament did come a year too late for some of them.
As for the upcoming changes to Ireland’s coaching ticket, they’re not what you would call awe-inspiring. John Fogarty was highly-regarded at Leinster, but Mike Catt didn’t reinvent England’s or Italy’s attack when he was involved with them, and it’s hard not to think that Ireland’s defensive issues against Japan and New Zealand somewhat undermine Andy Farrell’s credibility as head coach, not to mention the fact that he has never been in charge of any side at Test level before. He could well go out and prove himself to be a brilliant main man, but for now, Irish fans are staring into the abyss with regards to what to expect next.
And finally, a word on Ireland’s departing head coach. No one is entitled to anything in any sport (especially at the top level), but I can’t help but feel that Joe Schmidt deserved better than this. Maybe that’s an Irish bias, but it’s incredibly sad that the man who raised the bar in Irish rugby to a level that would have been unthinkable beforehand couldn’t add one more milestone to the list. The worst part is that, for a lot of people, this will be their abiding memory of him; they won’t remember the Six Nations titles, the Grand Slam, the first win on South African soil, the series win over Australia or the victories over the All Blacks.
Then there’s the other one-off glories like the demolition job on Wales in 2014, derailing England’s Grand Slam in 2017, the evisceration of the Springboks the same year or the last-gasp drop goal against France in 2018. For many, he will go down in history as just another Irish head coach who failed to get to a World Cup semi-final, and it will be lost on most people that the things he achieved are the very reason why the expectation that they should do so is there. The amount he has done for Irish rugby will never be forgotten by those whose opinions matter, though.
Thanks for everything, Joe.